I HAVE an uneasy, unusual and unwelcome feeling ahead of the Six Nations. It may be the first stirring of an upswing in confidence, which rarely bodes well for Scottish sport.
This is generally agreed to be the strongest squad that Scotland have gathered since approximately 1745 and we know how that one ended. But such is the unpredictability of sport in general, and the Six Nations in particular, that Gregor Townsend’s side could play pretty well and still emerge with just the one win to their name.
France and England are always tough games and both teams travel to Murrayfield with outstanding debts to collect after the Scots won in Paris and London last time out.
Scotland should see off Italy but Ireland have a powerpack of forwards that beat the Blacks and the Scots last won in Cardiff away in 2002 for heaven’s sake. (Incidentally I thought Wales had the second weakest squad last year and they still won the tournament so let’s not write them off just yet.)
Scotland again field threats right across a dangerous back-line, Russell and Hogg, Darcy and Duhan. They will look to utilise these weapons. The Scots ran the ball 700 metres (approx) more than they kicked it in the 2021 Championship. In contrast winners Wales kicked the ball 1,300 metres further than they ran it. This is perhaps inevitable when you have Russell pulling the strings for Scotland. There is no point picking the mercurial 10 and then ordering him to kick the ball away … as Townsend has already learned the hard way.
Having the Calcutta Cup first up is both an opportunity and a threat because whichever team loses will have to fight like mad dogs to regain any initiative. England, and especially their headstrong coach Eddie Jones, desperately need a good start after last season’s debacle when they finished fifth. Scotland must win their home matches if they have any hopes of finally mounting a Six Nations challenge. It is only the start of the sports but already there is much hanging on the opening weekend.
Jones’ selections have always been perverse. You understand why he wants Henry Slade at 12, so Marcus Smith is the ‘bairn’ in the experience sandwich, with Ben Youngs the other slice of bread – but why not select Joe Marchant at 13?
The versatile Harlequin has an uncanny understanding with Smith and scores a heap of tries for his club from little dinks/grubbers that the flyhalf nudges behind the rush defence inside the opposition red zone. Stuart Hogg for one will be relieved to see Marchant a place wider although Smith will still look for him with the kick/pass.
For all of England’s absentees, Jones has still picked a strong and exciting squad. Elliot Daly, who didn’t make the original training-squad cut, looks like he could be one weakness in the backline worth exploiting. Certainly, Chris Harris will look to dominate him physically if and when given a one-on-one opportunity just as Duhan van der Merwe will be hoping to get a run at Max Malins in the wider channels.
But what Daly and Slade both bring is a left boot (Smith and fullback Freddie Steward are right footed). So when England’s attack is moving from right to left, expect the visitors to execute a two-pass kick-play to isolate Hogg in the backfield. After two passes the winger will jump up into the line leaving Scotland’s skipper to deal with any kicks from left footers Slade/Daly. England will then hope to catch Hogg in possession and win the turnover/penalty or simply press him into gifting them an attacking line-out after a hurried clearance.
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These are risks that England might pose, while Townsend has opted to put an uncapped scrum-half on the bench, holding himself a hostage to fortune. The coach is taking the chance of playing 79 minutes of the biggest game of the season with London Irish’s Ben White, a newbie nine, in the drivers’ seat. He could have gone for George Horne, Scott Steele, Henry Pyrgos or Jamie Dobie who boast 43 caps between them. Why take an unnecessary gamble in such a crucial match … anyone?
His selection in the second-row makes more sense. Grant Gilchrist is preferred to Scott Cummings and here are the stats from last year’s Six Nations Championship for Scotland’s four main locks to help explain why?
So, to explain further … Gilchrist carried almost twice as often as Cummings per minute on the field and tackled 24% more often.
Nor does the Glasgow man make a difference at the sidelines where his line-out steals for the 2021 tournament (1) are in line with the others and his line-out wins (7) are just two more than Gilchrist despite being on the field a lot longer than his rival. Cummings simply isn’t busy enough to justify selection.
Elsewhere, you have to think England missed a trick at the coal face. Zander Fagerson conceded five scrum penalties last year (the most of any prop along with Wales’ Wyn Jones) yet England’s best scrummaging loose-head Joe Marler starts on the bench. Ellis Genge will look to test Fagerson at the set-piece but he doesn’t share the close quarters grappling skills as the Harlequin who will probably match up against WP Nel late in the game.
But the most obvious chink in Scotland’s armour is the lightweight breakaway unit where Townsend has effectively selected three sevens in Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson and Matt Fagerson. People always talk about getting the ‘balance’ of the back-row right, Townsend is wilfully ignoring this rule but will his team pay the price?
The mobile, skilful trio will greatly aid Scotland’s expansive attacking game but they will likely be a lot less effective when it comes to stopping the English juggernaut attacking maul, as perfected by Gloucester, that we know is coming. As ever discipline is key.
On one level you can understand Townend’s reluctance simply to pit his bashers (Bradbury, Haining) against England’s big beasts. Scotland probably can’t match the power of England’s back-five so they need to box clever but, on the flip side, if Scotland’s big men can’t stress the England defence with the ball in hand then that dangerous looking back-line is going to waste an entire evening chasing Russell’s kicks.
That is down to the other rule that Townsend has tried to ignore in the past … you must earn the right to go wide. We all witnessed what happened in RWC’19 against Ireland and it was not pretty.
Fagerson is a willing carrier and brings great energy but he is a relative lightweight and it shows up in the stats when compared with the best in the business. Gregory Aldritt’s average carry in last year’s Championship was 5.8 metres … Fagerson’s just 4.7 m. Nick Haining only played 99 minutes of Six Nations rugby in 2021, most of them against a hugely physical France, but the Aussie still managed to average 5.9 metres for his 19 carries.
Small margins matter although the speed/athleticism of Sam Simmonds could blow all the above out the water if Scotland don’t stop the English eight at source.
Scotland have no fear of England after recent years, they play at home and they do so in front of a packed, partisan crowd willing them on. England boast an exciting, young back-line that could produce something special if they are allowed to settle and the visitors may have an edge in the tight exchanges with wet and windy weather forecast. Both sides have oodles of experience at nine and brilliant match winners at ten.
Sorry, but this one is too close to call, I have a tenner on the draw.